2 June 2015

Islam and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM)

Guest blog by Nigeen Dara. 

There is ongoing controversy as to whether Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a religious or cultural practice. On one side of the debate are determined activists whose main goal is a crusade against FGM, which they view as a form of child abuse. On the other side are traditionalists who have assigned to religious belief a cultural practice involving barbarous and sometimes fatal forms of female genital mutilation.  

In order to determine where Islamic view stands as far as FGM is concerned we have to search the Quran and then the Sunnah (which is believed to be the words or actions of prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and is classed as authoritative by some Islamic sects).

The main Islamic schools of jurisprudence differ in their interpretations of the teachings and provisions of Islamic law and guidance regarding FGM. Shafi'i school of Islamic thoughts considers FGM to be obligatory. While the Hanbali, Maliki and Hanafi school of Islamic laws consider FGM to be recommended (or preferred). Although, religious views have influenced the practice of FGM, it is a practice that predates Islam, so to categorise FGM as an Islamic practice is incorrect. 

The Shafi’i position is clearly expressed, they believe that FGM is obligatory upon women. Shafi'i school of laws is followed by Kurdistan, Syria, Yemen and Jordan. While FGM is widely practiced in Yemen and Kurdistan as illustrated in studies, it is essential to highlight those who practice it have based this "religious" view on what has been passed down to them by their ancestors and not scientific evidence or teachings from the Quran.

Firstly, the Quran makes no reference to FGM, there is no agreement on a clear-cut ruling and there is no analogy (in reference to FGM) that can be implemented. A juristic opinion can only be based on the accurate social and medical understanding and interpretation of the practice and the implementation thereof of a legal ruling that is derived from accepted and credible sources, namely the Quran.

As for the Sunnah, there is doubt as to the credibility of some of the hadiths attributed to Prophet Muhammad in this regard. The truth is there is no proof of the authenticity of these narratives that can be used as the basis for a legal ruling on such a remorseless and fatal practice. Scholars cannot base their argument on narratives that cannot be traced to an authentic source since a valid argument can only be based on authenticity.

Although there is no mention of FGM in the Quran, a Hadith (saying about the life of the prophet) conveys a discussion between prophet Muhammed and a woman (Um Habiba) who was known for being a practitioner of FGM. Having seen her, Muhammad asked her if she kept practicing FGM. She answered "yes", adding: “unless it is forbidden and you order me to stop doing it.” Muhammed replied: “Yes, it is allowed. Come closer so I can teach you: if you cut, do not overdo it, because it brings more radiance to the face, and it is more pleasant for the husband.” Most clerics use this hadith to support that FGM is recommended, but not obligatory for women. But some say it is obligatory. While others who take a position against FGM call this hadith weak in relation to the “do no harm” principle of Islam or interpret the intention of the prophet differently. Those who claim that FGM is an act of Sunnah support their view with the hadith related by Al-Bayhaqi and Ahmad that; “Circumcision is an act of Sunnah for men and an honorable act for women”. However, it is critical to highlight that Al-Hajjaj Ibn Arta’ah, to whom the recounts of this hadith is traced back, is known for his chicanery and dishonesty in narration (thus making the hadith unauthentic).

An argument that abnegates the Islamic licitness of FGM is based on the fact that there is no evidence or indication which shows that the Prophet (PBUH) had any of his wives or daughters cut. Had FGM been among Islam’s commands and guidelines, the Prophet would have been the first to implement the law and carry out the practice on his wives and daughters. Thus, it is clear that the authentic Sunnah does not contain evidence that supports the legitimacy of FGM and that the Hadiths quoted to support the practice are weak and do not constitute a basis from which a legal Islamic ruling can be derived. In fact, FGM is but a procedure (or tradition) which Islam has left to time and medical progress to eradicate. 

The value and solemnity of the body as well as the right of the human being, whether male or female, to enjoy sound physical and mental health are among the ordinance and principles of Islam and all divine religions and is advocated by the credible hadith; “Do not harm yourself or others”. This Hadith encourages every Muslim to avoid any practice that would “harm him or others”. Both medical science and human experience establish the fact that FGM most certainly leads to the detriment of the girl being cut and, later, the mature woman as a consequence of bereaving her of vital tissues required by her body for natural functions, and exposing her to a life of health risks and psychological consequences. Such harm is forbidden in Islam as the Quran clearly states: “Do not kill yourself” and “Do not cast yourself into perdition”.

In Islam mutating or altering what God has created is forbidden as the Quran states; “We have created man in the best form”. Those who practice FGM are of the view that it is meant to beautify the female. On the contrary, FGM is a distortion of God’s creation by cutting and inflicting pain on a woman. The Prophet (PBUH) banned such alteration and is said to have cursed those who introduce any change in God’s creation. The Quran regards the cutting of organs, even in animals, as an act of disobedience and a sin. 

The precepts of Islam ensure a woman’s right to a successful and gratifying marital relationship. The principles of Islam call for the respect of the sexual relationship between a husband and wife and emphasises that each party has a right to a happy relationship. Therefore, it would be considered narcissistic and egotistical should one party gain satisfaction and not the other. The beliefs about a male’s right to enjoy the relationship but not the woman is clearly manifest in the cultural beliefs that associate FGM to the male’s satisfaction and contentment during sexual intercourse. On the other hand, the principles of Islam have considered the human being’s disposition towards sexual enjoyment and have associated sexual demand to a matter of human nature. The role of religion is not to combat or resist this instinct but, instead, to administer it in such a way as to ensure it remains within the framework of what is permissible and moral. 

Many customs and traditions passed down to us do not respect a woman’s feelings. As a matter of fact they have intentionally oppressed and frustrated her. Islam conclusively rejects all social beliefs that drive families to cut their daughters. Individuals who claim that women are void of mind and will, or that their lust is many times stronger than that of men have no science based evidence or reason that supports their claims which constitute a clear violation of the principles of Islam. A female is equal to a male in that she has feelings and desires, the ability to reason, and a conscience which can guide her towards observing religious precepts and respecting her body and chastity, thereby ensuring her righteousness.

Some are of the view that FGM is an approach by which a female’s desire can be disciplined. This contradicts the scientific fact that the source of a woman’s sexual desire is the brain. Sexual behaviour in both men and women is determined by the brain which sends orders to the organs. The body is an obedient servant to the brain where natural needs (such as food, sleep and sex) are concerned. Therefore, from a scientific perspective FGM does not help in disciplining a woman’s desire or in changing her behaviour. A cut woman’s sexual desire and behaviour are similar to those of an uncut woman and depends on her integrity, upbringing and the family in which she was raised. The imbalance occurs when the woman is deprived of the natural functions of her body as a result of the removal of natural organs. 

The majority of researchers acknowledges and recognises that FGM is a social practice to control women and constitutes a violation of her rights based on unfounded traditions and beliefs; some of these assumptions are:

  • FGM reduces the sexual desire of women, thereby helping maintain a girl’s virginity prior to marriage and her fidelity thereafter.
  • The social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong justification to carry out the practice.
  • The myth concerning the size and function of a female’s reproductive organs that cutting a girl allows the girl to develop into a mature woman fit for marriage and childbirth.
  • FGM is a procedure meant to beautify and maintain the cleanliness of a female.

FGM is a painful and harrowing experience for any girl and has multiple psychological consequences such as fear, depression, mistrust of parents and loss of self-confidence. Furthermore, the procedure implants in the mind of the child a dreadful illustration of herself as an immature being who is unable to respect her body and control her sexual desires and behaviour as stipulated by her mind and conscience and is therefore forced to do so by having her reproductive organs removed, and being subjected to extreme forms of pain. By this, we are, individually and collectively, implanting in our daughters negative, in fact erroneous and misguided, values.

Having examined the narrations pertaining to FGM, we can conclude that they do not contain any credible evidence that the practice is an act of Sunnah or that it even represents any substance for jurisprudence. This is the same view expressed by the majority of clerics who believe that “there is no evidence to refer to or Sunnah to follow” concerning FGM. In fact, the word “sunnah”, if correctly used in some of these narrations, refers to the then prevailing norm and not to the word as it was later used by the Prophet in its juristic sense. In my opinion, FGM cannot be founded on reports, but rather on the fundamental Islamic principle that inflicting pain on a human being is unlawful unless it brings benefits that exceed the pain.

However, although FGM may not be an Islamic practice there are people who believe it to be Islamic. Therefore, official statements from prominent religious leaders condemning FGM and declaring it “un-Islamic” are an essential part of the struggle against the practice. But it is not enough and it will not work alone. The cultural aspect can’t be neglected. As interviews show, FGM is often considered essential for proper marriage and family honor. Where it is practiced, it is inflicted on nearly all girls within the group. Mothers find themselves in the dilemma of either having to harm their daughters or not being able to get them married later on. Only if a large percentage of a group decides to stop mutilating girls, can FGM be eliminated. They have to take this decision at the same time and follow it through.

NOTE: Sunnah can either mean that a practice is religiously recommended or simply that it was done that way in the times of the prophet Mohammed.


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